Suraj Anand uses traditional German Vollkornmehl to recreate the rice flour and coconut puttu of his childhood, and finds that a little improvisation in the kitchen goes a long way to feeling at home in his new country.
Roasted rice flour, when kneaded with water, gives off a particular scent that is impossible to replicate in the dense, clean air of Germany. It just doesn’t hold the fragrance of home. This flour is the main (and sometimes, only) ingredient of the quintessential Malayali steamed starch puttu. Back home in India, puttu was breakfast at least twice a week. Sometimes it was even dinner. But here at home in Germany, puttu has quietly settled into becoming an ‘Indischer abend’ (Indian evening) staple.
Literally meaning ‘portioned,’ the puttu maav (dough) is made by soaking rice in water for three to four hours, then laying it out to dry, after which the rice is lightly roasted and coarsely powdered. This maav needs have just the right thari (texture) before it is steamed — achieved by adding a precise amount of cold water while softly kneading it. Finally, it is steamed with freshly scraped coconut in a cylindrical puttu kutti (vessel). It yields a gentle wave of aromatic heat as it slides from the puttu kutti onto your plate, where it is topped with a spiced gravy — or eaten on its own with a light sprinkling of sugar. It is a meticulous, but also, an easy process. I find each motion now evokes an instinctive nostalgia and yearning.
While I managed to smuggle a puttu kutti into Heidelberg, it is the maav that I still haven’t quite been able to recreate here in Europe — perhaps partly because I’m a lazy cook, and partly because I’m not quite ready to forget how puttu has tasted back home.
When acquiring a different nationality, one tends to reflect on themes of identity. And one of the things that a new country demands is improvisation and adjustment — not just on the cultural differences, but also on beloved culinary themes that sustain us from hour to hour. For me, it meant a not-always-seamless replacement of several integral staples — for instance, the pride of place held by a mound of hot rice has now been replaced with the softer fermented tang and crunch of bread.
The ‘brot’ culture of Germany has been conferred ‘cultural heritage’ status by UNESCO. It plays home to regional variations of bread (over 200-odd) not only in type, but also in nomenclature. The basic difference lies in the grain used, and whether or not it is ground with the husk. Our household, for one, is a strict Vollkorndinkelbrot (whole spelt wheat bread) one, where wheat grain is ground along with the husk. Interestingly, within months of arriving in Germany, I was delighted to discover that this Vollkorndinkelmehl (flour) provides exactly the right thari a puttu maav needs! When kneaded with cold water, Vollkorndinkelmehl behaves almost like powdered rice, somewhat even more binding than rice flour, ensuring that the puttu retains its characteristic and sought-after shape and fluff — although its pristine snowy hue is now partially earthy light-brown, thanks to the essence of the wheat grain.
It might not be the rice flour puttu of my childhood and youth, but for now, Vollkorndinkelmehl puttu will do.
RECIPE: Vollkorndinkelmehl Puttu
Ingredients for 3 portions of puttu
2 cups whole spelt wheat flour (whole wheat or rice flour will work just as well)
1.5 cups of water
A pinch of salt
½ cup scraped or desiccated coconut (mix desiccated coconut with water to give it the texture of scraped coconut)
For the maav
Roast the whole wheat flour for about 4-5 minutes till it is slightly brown. Be careful to not get it too brown. Once the roasted flour cools down, add salt and add water slowly while mixing the dough with your fingers. Do not add all the water at once. Keep adding water till the dough is crumbly, and just about holds together when pressed into a ball in the palm of your hand.
For steaming the puttu
A puttu kutti is needed for steaming the puttu. Made of two parts, the bottom half or kudam (pot) of a puttu kutti holds boiling water, while the cylindrical portion (kutti) holds the dough.
First bring 2 cups water to a boil in the pot.
The kutti has a thin perforated base which goes in first. Add 2 tablespoons of scraped coconut, followed by the puttu dough, till you reach the centre of the kutti. Now add 2 more tablespoons of coconut followed by the dough finally topping it with 2 more tablespoons of coconut spread out evenly. Make sure you don’t fill the kutti upto the brim.
Put on the lid and place the kutti on the pot of boiling water. Steam it on medium heat till steam starts escaping from the holes in the lid. This means that the puttu is done.
Let it cool for about a minute or two. Then open the lid and gently push out the steaming puttu from the kutti with a wooden skewer.
Suraj Anand is an Indian-born German, living in Heidelberg.
ALSO ON THE GOYA JOURNAL